The Problems & Progressive Local Solutions
Voting is instrumental in maintaining democracy, but access to voting has been under attack for a number of years. Many times in a blatant attempt to suppress Black, Brown, low-income, and youth votes, states have passed voter ID laws. This puts counties and cities on the spot to make sure that the voices of the people are still heard in our democracy.
But a city or county shouldn’t have to be in states suppressing voting rights to take part in expanding voting access. There are many strategies local governments can adopt that expand voting for its residents. Actions include, but aren’t limited to, creating accessible early voting locations, sustaining outreach and registration, lowering the voting age for local elections, a
Available Local Levers & Targets of Reforms
In states with voter ID laws, local governments are limited in what they can do. But there are strategies and ways to organize to maximize their voting power. Expanding voting access in all states, regardless of voting laws should be a priority.
There are many intersections of public leaders that can impact voting. County and City Clerks are on the front line, but Mayors, City Councils, County Boards, and County Executives all have influence in ways to expand voting rights and access.
Current Reforms & Tools to Fight for Them
One of the most important first steps to take is to make voter registration easier. Minneapolis is one of these cities, where your welcoming packet from a landlord has a voter registration form in it, as well as information about the next election. Making it easier for transient populations to register is important in elections. When it comes to innovative registration tactics, Houston, TX should be talked about. In partnership with Mi Familia Vota, targeting Latino communities, they had taco trucks double as voter registration booths.
But there are more ways to help with voting registration. A brief from the Center for American Progress, “Deepening our Democracy: How Localities Can Expand Voting Rights,” touches on four different tactics, including registration forms by landlords to renters, to help with registering voters. 1. Local Agency Registration, where city and county agencies offer voting registration at every touch. 2. High School Voter Registration, having high school registration programs that register students who will turn 18 by the next election. 3. Pre-registration of 16 – 17-year-olds, in applicable states, so when they turn 18 they are automatically registered. New York City is one example of a city with an ordinance where all city agencies can register voters. Not only must paperwork be provided, but city staff must also assist the individual in registration. The Center for Popular Democracy has also developed a tool kit, Expanding Voter Registration for Cities and Counties, for cities looking to adopt this initiative.
Along with making voter registration easier is expanding voting access. Some cities, like Takoma Park, MD, are lowering the voting age for local elections to 16. Doing this gets people involved in the political process at a younger age, making it more likely they’ll stay engaged as they age. Other cities like Seattle, that launched an immigrant voting task force, which created short, medium, and long-term recommendations to better engage immigrant populations in the electoral process. Further, The Center for Popular Democracy has developed a tool kit, Expanding Voter Registration in High Schools. It includes model legislation and a step by step process in developing a high school voter registration program.
This ties directly to making voting easier, Madison, WI is one of these cities, using public libraries across the city as early voting sites– where people can cast an in-person absentee vote. There are also locations housed on the campus of the University of Wisconsin Madison. This creates a lot of flexibility for people to vote when it is most convenient for them. Harris County went a step further, they developed a Polling Place Program, where voters can choose any polling station to vote. Meaning voters can cast their vote at any county polling place on election day, making it about ease of access and not having to vote in your registered precinct.
There are even larger structural reforms to deepen democracy localities can take upon themselves. Ranked-choice voting is one of these, the Twin-Cities and the Bay area have adopted ranked-choice voting, and is championed by FairVote.org. Voters rank candidates by preference on their ballot, and if a candidate wins the majority of first-ranked votes they win. If no candidate wins the majority of first-ranked, then the candidate with the fewest first-ranked votes is eliminated and the second preference on those ballots is lifted, creating a new tally. This process is continued until a candidate has won the majority. FairVote.Org has a model bill as a resource.
Another route to expanding voting access is making voting a paid holiday, Sandusky, Ohio passed an ordinance making election day a paid holiday- replacing Columbus Day. Even though this only impacts city employees, this is a step in the right direction.
Taking it to the Next Level
There is still a lot of work to be done on voting rights, especially when it comes to election integrity. The Brennan Center for Justice put together a brief on how to expand registration efforts, creating election day fail-safes, election day and voting machine security, election day audits, and more. Cities that are in states with voter ID laws, look into how to provide free voting IDs and application assistance programs. The Brennan Center for Justice wrote a brief expanding upon voter ID’s, “The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification.”
To push big money out of local level elections, looking into developing a Democracy voucher program, such as Seattle, Wa is a step forward. This is a voucher worth $100 from the city to residents, who can then donate it to the candidate of their choice. The idea here is to counter big money influence by creating opportunities for people to donate to their preferred candidate and might help less established candidates run a winning campaign.
Working with local governments to expand voting access through registration and polling locations is important. But the larger fight is challenging states to make registration and voting easier. Some, such as Fair Fight, are legally challenging undemocratic voter suppression practices; this fight is at every level.
Helpers & Allies
ProGov21 has more resources on voting from: